The English Civil War, its Fortifications and a ‘Modern’ Parliament?

The English Civil was one of those periods in history which is best known for the people who instigated it and the destruction wrought throughout the country.

Spanning the years 1642 to 1651 battles raged throughout Britain between the Royalists and Parliamentarians, also known as the Cavaliers and Roundheads, in what proved to be one of the bloodiest episodes in English history.

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The needless demolition and decimation of many fortified places span the length and breadth of the country. Structures which had stood for hundreds of years, and seen many a pitched battle, were slighted, demolished or blown up to ensure they could not be used against the new Commonwealth in the future.

Why was this destruction so severe and final? Charles I is remembered as the king killed by a Parliament who thought they could run the country better. The king was viewed as‘….an incompetent king; inaccessible, glacial, self-righteous, deceitful’ (Gaunt 2000, p. 15), however not all of the policies and decisions made by Charles I were entirely of his own doing. His policies ‘in the Church and State during the 1630’s were blamed upon evil advisors’ (Gaunt 2000, p. 32).

Parliament decided that Charles I had to go and so they set forth to abolish the monarchy. In 1649 Parliament set the wheels in motion for it was believed to be ‘unnecessary, burdensome and dangerous to the people and their liberty and freedom’ (Lindley 1998, p. 169). By the end of 1649 England ‘was declared to be a commonwealth and Free State’ (Lindley 1998, p. 171), no longer lead by a king.

With the declaration of a Commonwealth civil war broke out. It set father against son, brother against brother and wrought havoc throughout the country. Towns refortified their ancient Roman and medieval defences and individuals fortified their homes, whether castle, moated site or country residence, by means of gatehouses, earthwork defences and walls. The main difference from previous types of conflict, and to which new demands were placed upon the population, was that of new artillery that had the means to destroy castles and their medieval walls. The costs of the fortifications were upon those that undertook the work,

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The costs were borne by the citizens of the various towns, although money was forthcoming from Parliament in cases where places were considered of national importance such as Reading and Weymouth (Harrington 2003, p. 13).

A majority of the population lived in the countryside ‘Despite the size and importance of London, the overall proportion who lived in towns was small’ (Carlin 1999, p. 112). This placed a financial burden upon the towns’ people around the country. They had to decide who they supported, and this was by no means an easy choice to make, as there would always be some that disagreed with decisions made by those who ran the towns and their administrations. The Parliamentarians and Royalists also had their own issues, not only with trying to take control of the country, but in the ongoing needs of supplies for their armies. The need for arms, food, water and billeting of the troops placed a tremendous strain upon the ordinary people who had little to spare in the first instance.

Both sides had such severe administration difficulties that neither army was blameless, and so the unfortunate country people who had to find them quarters suffered the consequences (Young 1973, p. 18).

The main fortifications of the civil war were the star bastions, bulwarks and enceintes. The Royalists employed Bernard de Gomme, a Dutchman, to build their fortifications at Oxford, Liverpool, Reading, the Queen’s Sconce at Newark, and Bridgwater. He also improved the Parliamentary defences at Bristol once it fell into Royalist hands (Johnson 1989, p. 169).

Other fortifications constructed and/or added were located at King’s Lynn, Carlisle, Yarmouth, London, Plymouth, Chester, Colchester, Worcester, Dorchester, Barnstable, Earith, Dartmouth, Kingswear, Oxford, Liverpool, Corfe, Sherborne Castle, Basing House, and Donnington Castle, to name but a few.

In 1645 it was clear which way the war was turning. Castles were besieged and surrendered at quite a rate, including:

Tong Castle was reduced

Siege of Sherborne Castle

Leicester sieged

Pontefract Castle surrendered

Sherborne Castle surrendered

Cromwell besieged Winchester Castle

Sandal Castle surrendered
Donnington Castle sieged

Bolton Castle surrendered
Beeston Castle surrendered

Skipton Castle surrendered (Emberton 1995, various)

Not all activity at fortified sites is included in the above information for 1645, however what is included demonstrates the amount of activity and movements throughout one year of the Civil War.

When Parliament became victorious in their quest for a Commonwealth, orders were given for numerous fortified places to be demolished or ‘slighted’, so they could not be used against Parliament in the future. In some cases the orders were not carried out, however, in the majority they unfortunately were. Total destruction and the removal of materials to be used elsewhere were common around the country including castles, fortifications and defended or fortified homes, like Basing House.

History shows that Cromwell won some battles but he never truly won the war with the Restoration of the House of Stuart, under Charles II, in 1660 seeing an end to Cromwell’s plans.

With the current Government making so many cuts and changes to legislation, including the reburial act, let us all hope that the historical places, which our country’s history is built upon, and that brings millions of pounds into local areas each year, are not destroyed through neglect and lack of care when left to decay.

The big question arises as to whether there are any differences between deliberately slighting and demolishing buildings, or pulling all funding and cutting back jobs so there are no caretakers for Britain’s history and heritage?

•    They are both deliberate.
•    History and knowledge is lost.
•    No new investigations can be undertaken to help us better understand our past heritage – and what for?

The sake of a few ‘high-flyers’ keeping their multi-million pound pay packets and damn everyone and everything else. All through the hands of another Parliament. Obviously some have not learned from the mistakes of the past – will they ever? I doubt it.

Parliaments are voted in for the people, by the people. It is such a shame that they do not listen to the people. Maybe another historical event will soon be enacted – that of the Peasants Revolt. You push too hard the people will push back.

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Sue Carter
Sue Carter
Sue Carter is a research archaeologist living in Western Australia, and founder of the webpage . Sue’s passion lies in fortified sites, especially hillforts, and researching prehistory in both Australia and Britain. Having spent time in the Pilbara region of Western Australia recording Indigenous sites, Sue is keen to see that Australia’s prehistory is recorded, saved and the knowledge shared, to improve the understanding of Sahul’s settlement thousands of years ago.

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